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Hiring people for capability doesn’t necessarily reflect how they fit in with their colleagues. It’s one thing to be aware of our own shortcomings and intention to do things better, but what about the colleague or manager who just doesn’t “get” how their negativity or attitude is either holding themselves back or their team.

The Fixed Mindset

Attitude is partly a learned response to our unique experiences of life and partly personality. In her book Mindset, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck describes mindset as the single quality that separates those who succeed from those that don’t. Her research has revealed that the language used by parents when praising their children has a profound effect on attitudinal development. Subtle differences in intonation, wording and phrasing can make the difference between someone growing up with a fixed or growth-orientated mindset.

This is reflected in how you see the world. A fixed mindset sees that talent is innate, you’re either smart or you’re not and failure is to be avoided at all cost, whereas a growth mindset sees how effort leads to reward and that it’s expected to face a few bumps and setbacks along the way.

While we have our own individual mindset, a workplace has its own collective mindset. You feel it when you enter a business premises – it’s the ‘vibe’. A positive vibe is associated with a collective outlook that is future and solution-focused, open to new ideas and stimulated by the thought of the challenges waiting to be overcome. There is a sense of excitement and energy.

Back to the challenging colleague.

Can you persuade a leopard to change its spots?

Knowing how to nudge someone who is operating with a fixed mindset to become more open-minded can be a considerable challenge. There’s no guarantee of success and ultimately sometimes a decision has to be made to determine whether it is in the company’s interest to lose a capable but difficult colleague in preference to enduring the potential damage they can cause to morale and the business.

If they are worth fighting for then it is worth looking at finding a way – not to change them, because that’s not possible, but to enable them to be more open to alternatives and new ideas.

It comes down to fear.

With a fixed mindset, the brain’s response to new ideas is to see it as a threat to the status quo. Sensing danger, this triggers the stress or ‘fight, flight or freeze” response leading to a defensive or negative reaction.

“I don’t like the look of this new policy, it looks risky.”

“There’s no need to review this procedure – it’s working perfectly fine.”

“I don’t know why you want to try out this idea. We looked at it 6 months ago, it won’t work.”

The solution lies in helping the other person to develop their own insight into how they can change their way of thinking.

Solving a Fixed Mindset

Provide and reflect an environment that is supportive and “safe.”

This is where, as a leader, demonstrating how you respond to new ideas, setbacks and change allows others to see how effort can lead to positive outcomes, that setbacks, while a nuisance, can be overcome and how failure can lead to greater learning about what to do differently next time.

Use positive reinforcing language.

Praising for effort, or tenacity in seeing things through not only makes the person receiving the praise feel good, it reflects to them how it is possible to overcome challenges and find solutions.

Keep conversations open.

Be prepared to listen. It’s important that everyone is heard, especially the naysayers. It provides a forum for fears and anxieties to be aired and discussed, which in many instances will help to allay some of their concerns. Be prepared too to repeat the process several times. Shifting ways of thinking takes time and practice.

Enquire how they would address the issue.

Inviting dialogue can help someone with a fixed mindset come up with their own solution.

“Your results from that last project were encouraging, how could you communicate those effectively to the rest of the team?”

“I believe you have the capability to put yourself forward for a promotion, how can I help you with that?”

 “If you’re feeling stuck, what would make the biggest difference to allow you to move forward?”

Helping others empower themselves through developing a growth-orientated mindset, creates a brain safe environment that helps boost productivity and performance.


Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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